These days there is no shortage of information, especially now that anyone can post anything on the internet at any time. How do you determine whether the information you've found can be trusted and taken seriously? One tool you can use to analyze information is the CRAAP test. The CRAAP test is a list of criteria you should think about when evaluating any type of information – whether it is a website, book, pamphlet, news clip, or other type of resource.
You should always consider whether or not the information you have found is up-to-date. Most information that has been published by a professional author will list the date when it was posted or written. You should be wary if there is no date indicated.
When considering print materials like books, look for the publication date or copyright date on the title page or inside front cover. For websites, check headings, subheadings, and footers. You might also be able to tell from the web design whether or not the website is maintained and updated frequently. If there are a lot of dead links on the website, this could be an indication that this website has been abandoned.
However, don't be too harsh when judging web design. Depending on the type of organization, their budget for web design might be too small for them to keep up with all the current trends. Some non-profit or small business websites might not have the resources to create a slick new look every year. When evaluating currency, focus on the content of the website rather than the aesthetics.
Just because a piece of information was published a relatively long time ago doesn't mean it is invalid. It just means that you should try to find other recent sources to corroborate it. Some facts don't change and some fields change more slowly than others.
It is also possible that you don't need the most current information depending on the topic you are researching. If you are looking for restaurant reviews or medical information, you probably want the most up-to-date information. However, if you are trying to find Seinfeld episode guides, there is nothing wrong with guides that were written in the 1990s when it originally aired.
Deciding whether or not information is relevant can contain nuances. Especially when you are researching a topic that is controversial or that can be approached from many perspectives, you might find writing that contains logical fallacies or biases. Some authors might use irrelevant examples and make claims that fall apart upon closer scrutiny. The author might do this intentionally, or they might be naive of their own mistakes.
Many popular articles are designed to grab attention. Sometimes their titles don't have as much to do with the actual content as you would expect and may even sensationalize or twist the facts in order to be more interesting. The body of the content may similarly suffer from exaggeration and manipulation. It is important not to confuse a piece which is relevant with one that is merely interesting.
You should also consider who the target audience is. A piece of information that has been written for laymen is often very different from one that has been written for specialists, professionals, and experts in a certain field. Information that has been simplified or generalized for children might also be missing details that an adult would be able to appreciate. Depending on whether or not you fit into the target audience of a certain piece, you might decide that the information item is not relevant to you after all.
The credibility of the author is crucial when evaluating information. If the identity of the author is unknown or hidden, that is a red flag that this information may not be reliable. Most reputable authors will have a fairly sizeable online presence that you can use to determine whether or not they have the qualifications needed to write about a certain topic.
You may want to check social media sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter to see if the author has listed valuable information such as their educational and professional background and whether or not they have a wide network of supporters, fans, and colleagues. A person who is well-connected to other reputable authors or who has many followers already is more likely to possess recognizable expertise.
It is also a good sign if the author of the content has provided contact information for you to ask them follow-up questions or let you know what you think about their writing. If someone does not provide the opportunity for others to confront them about their work, it may be because they don't believe in it strongly or even because they know that they have presented errors.
Accuracy can be a difficult thing to determine, especially if you are not yourself an expert on the topic you are researching. One strategy to tackle this is to look for many sources of information that all provide the same conclusions. You can also consider the reputation of the author or organization and the methodology they used to discover and prepare the information.
Information that is supported by evidence is more likely to be accurate. Sometimes an author will refer to specific evidence directly within their writing. Other times they might include a list of references that you can use to confirm that the author has done careful research of their own.
You might also consider whether or not the information has been reviewed or referred. A piece which has both an author and an editor associated with it is likely to have been scrutinized more rigorously than one that the author produced in a vacuum and then uploaded without any need for feedback.
Sometimes the comments section of a website or article can also provide clues on accuracy if other readers have pointed out inconsistencies or errors.
Like relevance, the purpose of a piece of information can be elusive to the casual observer. However, it is very important to figure out whether a piece of information is intended to inform, educate, sell, or persuade. Of course, it is always possible that a piece of information has been designed to target several or all of those goals at once!
Make sure you can tell the difference between advertisements and objective information, and be wary of endorsements within reviews. Try to determine whether or not the author has a monetary stake in whether or not you buy a certain product or sign up for a certain service. If you hover your mouse over a link, you can often see if there is a referral or affiliate tag embedded in it.
That said, just because a website has advertisements on it doesn't mean that the information can't be used. In fact, monetary gain can be a powerful motivator for professional writers to produce high quality articles. Most content producers, including individuals and organizations, would also not be able to operate without financial support whether in the form of advertisements, grants, or sponsorships.
Rather than trying to limit yourself to publications that have no advertisements at all, try to be mindful about choosing resources that have a reasonable balance of useful content versus advertising.